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Organizations With No DBAs

By Sean Grinslade,

Introduction

Outside of the corporate umbrella of service departments or the process-oriented public sector, you will find a large number of commerical and software businesses that have no idea how to handle SQL Server or DBMS systems. The reasons are many and we have all heard them before: "no budget", "our network engineer handles all servers", "our developers are smart enought", and "it came with XXX software product".

What is the First DBA to do?

At first it is easy to dismiss these companies as parochial and out-of-touch. However, many of these companies generate millions of dollars in revenue and use SQL Server as part of their software systems. Then, someting goes wrong with SQL Server (i.e., "why did we run out of log space?") and the company goes looking for a new employee or contractor to "just fix it".

Now, you have been contacted by the company and been deemed acceptable to help out with "database stuff". First, you must decide if you want to accept such a large responsibility in a company with no idea of IT management especially around databases. Making this decision should be carefully considered. Frustrating yourself and your employer due to unrealistic expectations will harm both.

Here you are as a tough and ready DBA willing to take on the challenge of a company that can barely spell S-Q-L or D-B-A. In my experience, there are two general paths to success. The first is for a smaller company with usually less than 30 people. The second path is for larger companies that have a business un-related to the software industry.

Looking at the first example, a smaller company with no IT experience, your approach must be careful. Someone at the company has been maintaining their database server and your addition to the team is going to be greeted with relief or suspicion. The best approach is to develop a dialog between yourself, the management that hired you, and the current IT person or people. You will have to introduce methodologies, maintenance plans, and disaster recovery in a progressive and easy-to-understand fashion. The secret to this type of job is patience and tenacity. You may be the only one seeking to put order to the chaos. Moving to an orderly environment is one of many, small steps.

On the other hand, you have just been hired by a larger company with excellent profits but no appreciation for IT infrastructure. Now your job is going to involve cataloging the database servers, developing maintenance schedules, and providing clear reporting to management. Since most of these companies have been very successful in their market, they may still need education on the cost of maintaining an information infrastructure. In this job, your work will include injecting DBMS costs and planning into an existing budget and approval process. Keys to success in this position include accepting the current back-office support guidelines, networking with important groups dependant on the database servers, and mentoring helpdesk or IT operators in the issues around having production databases.

Calling in Help

Depending on the degree of neglect, a very good strategy is to find short-term consultants to assist in the initial phase on the way to well-maintained, happy databases servers. For small businesses, this may seem an unnecessary expense but your counter-argument is a few, extra hands can complete the major work in half the time of you working alone.

Larger companies will often resist additional consultants citing the need to "train up" another IT person. Unfortunately, these disciples are often completely unsuitable having supported only PC desktop software at the helpdesk, for example. This is another place where you may counter that having a short-term (2-week) engagment from another SQL DBA will accelarate proper maintenance and documentation. Then the junior IT person can be trained from the work completed.

In reality, this scenario of companies blind to the needs, maintenance, and costs of using databases for critical business applications is wider spread than most may think. If you are bold enough to step up to the challenge, bring your scripts and methodologies and do not forget to bring in additional resources at the beginning of the project to acheive lasting success.

Who knows but in the future you may be the DBA called in for the initial planning and implementing.

Conclusion

A last word of caution on using additional DBA resources/consultants/contractors is to verify their skills. In the day of phone interviews with the prospect using Google and other tricks, hiring or recommending a DBA requires either a good work history involving yourself or a multi-phase, in-person interview loop. This includes consultants recommended by sites such as http://www.dbaexpress.com or http://www.grinware.com, among many others.

The challenges are many and, for the right person, they can be very rewarding when you are the first DBA at a company. Good luck to all who try to make IT better.

 

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